Thomas J. Shara

Banks play a unique role in our society as trusted stewards of our customers’ assets. We enable individuals and families to finance their dreams and aspirations: to purchase a home, save for an education, or retire in security and comfort. And, we fuel the dynamic engine of our economy, helping businesses to grow, thrive and create jobs.

But, in order for banks to truly understand, support and serve our communities, it is imperative that we look like our communities. We need to recognize that, as an industry, banking has not always been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion efforts. That must change if we want to continue to deserve the trust and respect of our customers and communities. We must do our part to address the inequities of our society by promoting greater diversity within our own ranks, and by supporting community organizations that offer solutions to the disparities in economic opportunity, education, housing and healthcare. 

We can be proud of the strong example that the New Jersey Bankers Association is setting in this regard. Our recent webinar, “Banking on Diversity & Inclusion,” was a thought-provoking conversation with leaders from the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, as well as several national and community banks. The Emerging Financial Leaders Group (EFLG) continues to nurture the careers of our industry’s future leaders through educational, networking and community engagement programs. And, since 2011, our Women in Banking Conference has provided inspiration, insight and support for women in our industry.

On a national level, the American Bankers Association has joined with other business organizations to urge the Banking Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the “Improving Corporate Governance through Diversity Act” (H.R. 5094). The Act would promote efforts to increase gender, race and ethnic diversity on corporate boards of directors through enhanced disclosure of the gender, race, ethnicity, and veteran status of their boards, nominees, and directors, and also would require companies to disclose their diversity plans.

As recent protests have made clear, our nation and institutions have a long way to go to remedy racial and social injustice. The solutions are as complex as the problems, and will not come easily. I believe now is the time for all of us as good corporate citizens to step up our diversity and inclusion efforts. Here are some actions we may want to consider: 

Sharing Knowledge. NJBankers should create forums that allow members to share ideas, experiences and best practices in the area of diversity and inclusion. Lakeland, for example, named a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer earlier this year and launched a Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. Since no one has all the answers, we would benefit from sharing ideas and learning how other institutions are addressing the same issues.

Targeting Talent Diversity. The banking industry has accepted the fact that new skill-sets are essential to meet the needs of customers and operate in a changing business environment. (How many of us have hired digital banking professionals in recent years?) Similarly, we should view diversity as an important qualification for employment in banking today. Diversity is not only a vital factor in creating equal opportunity – it also helps us become stronger organizations by increasing our potential talent pool and broadening our perspectives.

Investing in Knowledge Capital. Financial “know how” is an additional benefit that banks can offer – perhaps just as important to customers as savings or credit products. Many members of NJBankers already support various programs that provide education and/or down payment subsidies for first-time homebuyers, foster financial literacy, or promote economic opportunity by other means. It could be beneficial for the Association to compile a “library” of such programs, which could be accessed by members who seek new ways to “lend” expertise to programs that help bridge the gaps in economic opportunity.      

I am encouraged by the programs created by NJBankers, and by the actions that I have seen many of our members take individually. Collectively, we are on a journey toward a more diverse, inclusive and fair industry – but we must pick up the pace. Each bank needs to find its own solutions to attracting, retaining and fostering talent that is representative of our diverse society, while contributing to greater equality of opportunity. We must all pursue that goal with determination, vigor and a sense of urgency.